Festival of the Incarnation

By Bob Howard In Essays

The Festival of the Incarnation


When God came among us as one of us.

Beginning the way we all began, issuing from a woman's body, as a helpless babe, mewling and puking.  Scandalous, right?  A stumbling block to holy thinking, right?  But that's what it was.  That's what it was meant to be.  Eternity cradled in time.  The ruler of the universe a bare naked baby wrapped in the spare cloths his mother had at hand.

Pretty it up.  And we have.  Made a grand spectacle of it what with bright stars, camels and astrologers, angelic choruses.  As if we, those from the beginning telling the events no less than you and me, felt an obligation to clean it up and straighten it out, or, at worst, cute-ify it.   Somehow we feel obligated to make sure everyone knows that in this mewling and puking baby resides unimaginable power compared to which the hydrogen bomb is a firecracker.

There's the rub... and the very common heresy, to minimize God's full humanity in Jesus.

We went, as is now our late October tradition, to Scottish Heritage Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church (locally called "The Fish Church" since it looks like a beached whale) in my hometown, Stamford CT.  Among the Scottish literary treasures offered each year this time was an "affirmation" from the Scots Confession of 1560 (quoting in part): "We confess one God alone... who is infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible...". I asked Barbara on the way home whom I would be identifying were I to rephrase the confession this way: "we confess one God alone who is finite, measurable, comprehensible, impotent, and visible."  Without a pause, she answered, "Jesus."  Sharp theologian, my dear wife is.

But she is not preaching this season.  And many of those who will be holding forth in the pulpit will be unlikely to celebrate the freely chosen vulnerability of God, and in his doing that scrambling every earthly notion of hierarchy, be it political, religious, corporate, or familial.  That the greatest of all is the servant of all.  That God's most characteristic action is his self-giving.  That his power is made perfect in weakness.  The cross.

Once years ago I spied this sarcastic bumper sticker: "She who dies with the most toys wins."  I doubt the driver would say she believed it; but, in fact, it often seems as if it were the rule by which the world lives. And it is totally out of step with that tiny baby mewling in Bethlehem, the one who when he grew up, put on a cross to inaugurate a new kingdom based not on how much one can get, but how much one can give of herself.

The preacher before whom I sat this past Sunday went on in similar vein in his sermon on the incarnation.  Over latte at a local coffee shop a fellow worshiper disagreed with my congratulatory assessment of the sermon, complaining he looks for a spiritual uplift in worship, not just,  apparently, the simple Gospel truth about the nature of God, especially a God who seems intent on confounding our reflexive notions about power, not love, as the agency of change. 

Okay, so let's consider the uplift resident in a serious (and fully orthodox!) insistence on the humanity of God.  Supremely it is the assurance of sympathy in high places.  When I complain about the insults, afflictions, and annoyances which vex me, my partner of sixty-one and a half years, ever the schoolteacher she once was, usually offers me one or more strategies to overcome the troubles.  In such moments I can be heard to respond with some vexation that what I want is not advice but sympathy.

In the struggles, ordeals, setbacks, sorrows, and sheer comeuppances of this mortal life to which everyone of us is prone, God's primary response is sympathy.  We name that sympathy Jesus, about whom in the Apostle's Creed 75% of the verbs describing his time among us are: suffered, crucified, and buried.  To borrow a  line from a current TV insurance ad, Jesus knows a thing or two... about our human existence.  Or reread Psalm 139, with which you are familiar even if you don't think you are, the song which begins "O Lord, you have searched me and known me."  No escaping this deity.  No funk is deep enough. God is there.  Even in hell... which the Apostle's Creed (in its complete form) acknowledges.  And that includes the hells of our own making suffered and populated in this 21st Century.  

Think about it, what the narrative of Jesus' life includes: being excluded at birth; a very likely shadow of illegitimacy over his youth in Nazareth; charged with blasphemy by religious authority; bereft by the cowardice of his closest friends in his darkest hour; nailed to a cross by political expediency; dying with not a penny, only a robe, to his name.  And you and I sometimes think we have it hard!  Sure he didn't live long enough to experience the ravages of age and accident.  But in his brief thirty years or so he faced intense sufferings most of us, thank God, shall never. But, if and when, you or I do, we'll find he has been there already.

Finally, let me address that likely dismissal of my argument with the rueful observation that the sympathy of heaven is a small and maybe even a  laughable benefit with which to explain the incarnation.  Except that in my years of pastoral care and careful observation of which, I have found the assurance that God understands - that in everything God is with us, that even hell, especially that of our own devising, is open to heaven - is the preamble to any rise from the ashes.  It's not divine intervention, it's not some miraculous moment being plucked out of our hopeless predicament, that saves us.  It's mostly taking a deep breath, trying again, a little, maybe a lot of, help from family and friends, forbearance with pain, a willingness to sacrifice, loads of patience, and even more persistence, all of it lived out beneath the assurance that God wants for all of us (and me and you, no less than anyone else!) an abundance of life, always, that the new and better day arrives.

Friends, it's no small, even if often ignored, matter that the "uplift" resident in the incarnation is its claim that Jesus is our Emmanuel, "God with us."  Which also means God for us.

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